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Corporate Truth on the Table

By Joel Manby | January 26, 2023
Corporate Truth on the Table

Note: The divided nature of our world has long been noted by many in leadership circles. Thoughtful discourse, especially with those whose views differ from ours, is in critical condition. Hopefully, this excerpt curated from my 2012 book Love Works can serve as a helpful how-to guide to get to the heart of corporate decision-making matters.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a moment. What should I do?

At the time, I was CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment Corporate (HFE), one of the largest themed entertainment companies in the world. I was sitting in our largest conference room with my direct reports and some of their staff. We had recently made a difficult decision to close a money-losing theme park. We took a large financial write-off, which was not good news – no CEO can survive too many of those. Although the previous management had planned and built the park, I still took part of the blame and felt a great deal of pressure. This was a clear failure, and we needed the next step to be a good one.

This meeting was a tense situation where getting at the “corporate truth” would be critical. Corporate truth means dealing with the realities of your specific organization and industry, as contrasted with the truth about an individual. However, as I was learning at that moment, corporate truth can be a slippery fish to land. 

Our goal for the meeting was to decide what we would do with this shuttered park and the surrounding acreage. As we discussed the situation, the debate grew rancorous. Nerves frayed as we tried to recommend a course for a board meeting that was only a month away. Should we tear down the facility? Repurpose it? Sell it? Build a new attraction to replace it? People began interrupting one another; voices were rising; faces became red with frustration.

Steps Toward Truth

It was clear we needed some ground rules to gain control of the discussion and ensure it was constructive and truthful. So, even as the arguments continued, I stood and walked to the flip chart we had in the room. I uncapped a thick black marker and wrote the following rules:

RULE 1: DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER.

I said, “You guys need to relax and let the negative opinions come out. We have to learn from our mistakes so we don’t repeat them. Let’s deal with the information, not the person expressing the opinion.” In order for the corporate truth to be uncovered, we need to remember that no single person is responsible for that group truth – and we must hear the unfettered individual truth in order for the corporate truth to be revealed.

RULE 2: DON’T CONFUSE DISAGREEMENT WITH CONFLICT.

“Healthy disagreement is needed to arrive at the best possible solution,” I said. “Conflict develops when people take the disagreement personally. If we want to get at the corporate truth here, we have to focus on the disagreement and not on our hurt feelings.”

I went on to say that getting the truth on the table was the first priority, and healthy disagreements were a way to ensure that would happen. After all, if all of us agreed, some of us weren’t really needed!

Our chief financial officer said, “I agree. At McKinsey we used the phrase ‘cuss and discuss’ to assure we got at the truth.”

Then the vice chairman chimed in, “Let’s make it ‘fuss and discuss’ – keep it family friendly!” The ensuing laughter broke the ice in the room, and I continued our discussion.

RULE 3: DON’T ASSUME PEOPLE SEE IT.

“We all have different perspectives,” I said. “The finance team, creative team, operations team, and marketing team all see the failures of the past and opportunities for the future from a different perspective. Don’t assume other people see what you see. Get it out on the table.”

To assure this happened, I called on people and made sure everyone in the room spoke, or had a chance to, before we moved to another issue. This approach is especially helpful when the issues are controversial and there is disagreement. Think of the corporate truth as a jigsaw puzzle; without contributions from everyone involved, you will never see the whole picture.

RULE 4: SPEAK NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PEACE.

“Before you leave this room,” I said, “you need to have voiced your opinions. If your opinions are challenged and you lose the argument, you must be reconciled to the rest of this team. You will have your opportunity to persuade the rest of the team to agree with your point of view, but if a vote of your colleagues goes against you – well, you had your chance to speak, so you’ll need to get on board with the team. I expect you to support whatever decision we make when you leave this room.”

The discussion went well as we uncovered the various lessons we could learn about what went wrong. However, moving forward, we still had a variety of ideas on the table for the new attraction we would put on this property.

Getting the corporate truth isn’t easy. Using these robust discussion and decision-making processes takes more time, discipline, and hard work. However, it engages people at their highest level and leads to the best decisions possible – both outcomes any leader should desire, and both are necessary when leading with love.

As a leader, do you create an environment that produces truthfulness, that is trusting? Do you want to learn how to?

Click here to learn more about one-on-one mentoring with 25-year veteran CEO Joel Manby, or Executive Leadership, a 12-month C-suite curriculum in a small group setting.

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